19th Ct Town Housing

The press of people pose problems for planners,
1800 - 1901

In 1800 only ten per cent of the population of Britain lived and worked in the towns; by the end of the century the situation was significantly swapped, with 75% now cramming the towns. During the same time Britain's population had ballooned by 411% (from 9 to 37 millions). Today, if a new town or enlargement of an existing town is built it is carefully planned in advance, but during the earlier part of the nineteenth century there were no such rules. The entrepreneur of the day could site their factory as close to the resources as possible, and coal mines could be sunk wherever an outcrop was spotted or underground seam discovered. The housing for workers in the new industries was constructed as densely and as close to the factory as possible.

Considerations such as water supply and sanitation, taken for granted today, were haphazard during the dynamic growth of Britain's industrial towns in the early 19th century. After all, these new workers came from the countryside and knew no better! Writing about a typical back to back housing street in Liverpool, a doctor said, "A court of houses, the floors of which were below the public street, and the area of the whole court was a floating mass of putrefying vegetable and animal matter so dreadfully offensive that I was obliged to beat a hasty retreat. Yet the whole of the houses were inhabited." Charles Dickens thundered about the squalid conditions, but the problem was largely ignored as it was no one's business to do anything about it and there were too many vested interests in the status quo.

The London Cholera epidemic of 1831 brought the problem to the middle classes, as disease knows no such boundaries. Despite deliberate ignorance and a refusal to acknowledge the obvious facts by the authorities, contaminated water supplies were eventually recognised as the vectors of the disease. Water and sewerage companies were formed, but not before the Whig parliament of the day had passed the Municipal Corporations Act in 1835 that allowed town councils to raise the necessary finance by levying "Rates", local taxation, to pay for the great clean up.

Even with the improvements, public health standards were not good enough. Sewerage still leaked from poorly jointed pipes into the water supply and another bout of cholera in 1847 prompted the government to take action.

In 1834 Sir Edwin Chadwick (1800 - 1890) had been appointed by the government as part of a commission to look into the working of the Poor Law. This worked by the better off workers paying a levy to support the really poor. Chadwick's answer was to make poverty so disagreeable (as if it were not so already!) that no one would want be poor and the problem would vanish. He was intensely hated for this obstinately held belief, and when he turned his attention to the north of England the opposition was so complete that the New Poor Law was never enforced. Chadwick redeemed himself somewhat by his championing of better public health works and in 1848 the Public Health Act was passed. This provided for the establishment of local Health Boards to oversee the improvement works.

In 1875 a further Act was passed to appoint Medical Officers of Health in towns. These had wide ranging powers, and many public hospitals were built under their direction. Sanitary inspectors were appointed to deal with water supply and drainage, and they lead to the building of public baths and wash houses. They also inspected slaughterhouses and food markets to raise hygiene standards.

By the close of the 19th century, although the working class parts of towns were still overcrowded, at least the primary necessities for health were provided. It would be another 60 years before the appalling air pollution in towns and cities received similar attention with the Clean Air Act imposing its better fuel burning standards on industry and households alike.

19th century squalor


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